Professional tennis star Caroline Wozniacki has always prided herself as being one of the most fit athletes on the WTA tour. “I think that’s something I definitely win quite a few matches on,” she has said. Earlier this year, Wozniacki regained her status as the No. 1 female player in the world when she won the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam victory. But after being besieged by injuries and debilitating fatigue, she suspected something was wrong beyond the typical sprains and pains that come with being an elite athlete.
Joint Pain, Stiffness, and Other Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms Started in Summer
“After Wimbledon, I really wasn’t feeling well,” Wozniacki said in a press conference on October 25. “I thought it was the flu. I thought it was fine; I’m going to get over it. I got to Washington, and my knees are hurting, my leg is hurting. Okay, I’ll just move on. I play in Montreal and something really doesn’t feel right. I can’t lift my arms over my head. I go to see the doctor, and they tell me everything is fine, and then I know that I’m not fine. I thought maybe I had mono. It turns out that I have an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, which goes in and attacks your joints,” Wozniacki said.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis Is Shocking News to Extremely Fit, Elite Athlete
“In the beginning, it was a shock,” Wozniacki said in reference to her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. “You feel like you’re the fittest athlete out there. That’s what I’m known for, and all of a sudden you have this to work with. Obviously, when the body has a lot of fluids in it and you swell up, you get tired, you get exhausted — all these things.”
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints. When a person has RA, her immune system confuses the linings of her joints as being something foreign to the body and begins attacking and damaging the joints. The result is a great deal of joint inflammation and pain, combined with a debilitating fatigue.
Pain Affects Joints on Both Sides With Rheumatoid Arthritis
RA most often affects the distal joints symmetrically — the hands, wrists, and knees. Nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population lives with rheumatoid arthritis. According to a report published in September 2017 in the journal Rheumatoid International, there were nearly 1.3 million adults living with RA in the United States in 2014. The Arthritis Foundation states that 70 percent of people with RA are women.
Dealing With Chronic Disease Is Different From Rehabbing a Sports Injury
Once Caroline Wozniacki was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she began to understand that unlike most athlete injuries that have a finish line for recovery, RA is a chronic disease that requires a lifetime of management. “It’s been a lot to take in,” she said. “After the U.S. Open, I had to figure out what was going on,” she said. “But at the end of the day, you find a plan. You figure out what to do. You do your research. And thankfully there are great things now that you can do about it. You just move on from it and work through it and figure out how to deal with it and live with it.”
Experts Cannot Predict This Tennis Player’s Future With RA
Wozniacki’s future path as an elite athlete may be hard to predict, because it is rare to see an adult female athlete diagnosed with RA.
“Typically, if an individual had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a child, even with excellent medical management, she would probably never rise to the level of an elite professional athlete,” says Brian J. Cole, MD, associate chairperson, department of Orthopedic Surgery and professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The pool of elite female athletes also narrows substantially from high school to college to the professional level. So you are dealing with an elite athlete who has been diagnosed as an adult, which is extremely uncommon.”
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms May Impact Small Joints in Hands, Knee Joints
Despite the rarity of seeing the world’s former No. 1 tennis player being diagnosed with RA, Dr. Cole says Wozniacki, who is not his patient, may benefit from the significant advances in how the disease is being treated.
“Typically, rheumatoid arthritis can affect everything — organs, fatigue, and so forth,” Cole said. “But it most commonly will present with joint pain, particularly in the hands, which is a big issue for tennis players. A lot of it depends upon what symptoms she shows. If it affects the small joints in her hands and her knuckles, obviously that could be a really big issue with her recovery and her performance grip strength. If the disease develops in another common area, her knee, that’s also a challenge.”
Rheumatoid Arthritis Is a Treatable Disease, Especially When Treatment Starts Early
The good news, says Cole, is the modern rheumatoid arthritis treatments that have been developed have become so phenomenal in managing the symptoms that people can live a fairly normal life in many instances.
“When I was a resident,” says the co-host of the Chicago radio program Sports Medicine Weekly, “RA was a disease that they didn’t manage well with medicine, and we were operating on rheumatoid patients all the time. Now it’s extremely rare that those patients ever come to surgery, because the medical management is so good. It really stays out of the purview of the orthopedic surgeon and in the purview of rheumatologists and medical management.”
The fact that Wozniacki was able to continue competing at a high level with her recent diagnosis is a testament to her will and perseverance as an athlete. With the WTA season drawing to a close, she feels the off-season will help her adapt more to life on the professional tennis tour with RA.
Positivity Persists as Pro Athlete Learns to Cope With Rheumatoid Arthritis
“I’m very proud of how I’ve been so positive through it all and just try not to let that hinder me,” Wozniacki said. “I didn’t want to talk about it obviously during the year, because I didn’t want to give anybody the edge of thinking that I’m not feeling well. But I’ve been feeling well. You learn how to cope after matches. You wake up, and some days you can’t get out of bed. You just have to know that that’s how it is. Other days you live and you’re fine, and you don’t even feel like you have it. I’m happy that I’m done with the season, so that I can control it a little bit more and figure out a plan how to control it even better in the future.”